This entry is part 24 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

In 2013, I did an article about the top competitive decks in Commander, called “The Seven Deadly Sins.” It was short, vague, and, like all things, it eventually became outdated. Due to some major policy shifts by the powers that be, the format has moved quite a bit in just over a year, but we’ll cover that in a minute. To get 2016 started on the right foot, I’m doing an update to my original article. This is where I see 1v1 Commander as of the release of Battle for Zendikar. Commander 2015 will certainly create some waves for the format, but at this point I’m not prepared to make any definitive statements about how the new cards will contribute to Commander. If you don’t regularly play 1v1 Commander, this article is a great way to get introduced to the format. I’ll discuss the top decks in the format and give a brief explanation of how they work and what makes them good. But first, old news:

 

Rules Changes and The Banned List

Since 2013 we’ve had significant changes to the institutional rules of Commander. First, the changes to the “Legend rule” curbed the power of Clone effects. This somewhat reduced the versatility and usefulness of these cards in Commander. In particular, strategies that relied heavily keeping their Commander in play got a bit safer. This mainly impacted tier two Voltron strategies like Uril, the Miststalker or Rafiq of the Many.

 

The second important rules change was the “tuck rule.” This altered the way replacement effects interact with cards that would cause a Commander to change zones. Now you are given the choice to have your Commander be placed back in the Command Zone, whenever it would change zones. This further protected Commander-centric strategies and severely reduced the playability of staples like Condemn and the Commander original Spell Crumple. The current Commander environment is more hostile to ‘good stuff’ decks than ever before.

 

Lastly, along with the changes to the “tuck rule” came a rethinking of the EDH Rules Committee’s position on certain Commanders. The banned list is the banned list. For better or worse, the RC doesn’t support the use of these cards in Commander. Previously, though, certain cards were legal for play in the 99, but couldn’t be used as a Commander. With this rule change, they removed the double standard. The result is that Braids, Cabal Minion, Erayo, Soratami Ascendant, and Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary are no longer legal for play. Notably, the RC chose to leave other problematic Commanders like Edric, Spymaster of Trest off the banned list. They are toeing a line on some cards and taking a conservative approach, which I support.

 

Bans in casual formats are always going to feel heavy-handed, especially when you take away a card that was originally printed in a Commander set. For the most part, the RC isn’t interested in regulating the world of 1v1 Commander, which I think is for the best, but keep in mind that their official banned list is the guiding rule for Magic Online play, where I now do most of my Commander testing and observation.

 

Other notable changes to the list in recent years are that Kokusho, the Evening Star is now legal. Sylvan Primordial got banned at some point. I’ve never heard an adequate explanation as to why, but there it is. Here’s a link to the current list.

 

Tier Architecture

Before I discuss the top decks, I want to outline the structure that I use to evaluate each Commander’s status in the format. The first thing to know is that deck lists aren’t always consistent in Commander. In theory, we would like to always discuss optimal lists: the one true list that is always the best no matter what metagame you are playing in. Frankly, there just isn’t a reliable way to play enough games with all the different possible configurations or card choices and metagames compositions to discover what’s optimal. A project like that is a little too big for just one guy to tackle.

 

So, rather than try to find the optimal deck list for each possible Commander deck, I tend to only consider centralized lists. A centralized list is composed of only the most common cards in the archetype. A few years ago this information was much more difficult to assemble, but now we have EDHREC.com to give us quick approximations of what a centralized list would look like, based on a sample of about 35,000 decklists posted on TappedOut.net. When I talk about any deck in this column, understand that I’m talking about the centralized list. A generalization that’s  not based on any single deck. An average, if you will.

 

I divide competitive Commander into two tiers, much like you would find in the discussion of any other format. In Standard there’s one deck, or maybe a handful of decks, that are the best in the format. These decks are the most successful and regularly show in the top tournaments.

 

Then there are other decks that aren’t quite as good, but still see regular play. Those are tier two decks. There are some other decks, mostly ‘rogue’ decks or homebrews that are decidedly less good and have little impact on the competitive metagame. These decks occupy a third tier that I would simply label as non-competitive.

 

This gives us some track to run on, but it doesn’t map directly onto Commander. Everyone in a Standard tournament is trying to win, so we know that their list is intended to be competitive. However, because people don’t alway play the best deck just for the sake of winning in Commander, it can sometimes be difficult to identify what’s meant to be competitive and separate that from more casual lists. Here’s how I lay out the competitive tiers for the MTGO metagame:

 

Tier One:

  1. It regularly outperforms every deck in the format that isn’t tier one. So, it must be 55% or better when compared head-to-head against other decks in the format at large, AND…

  2. It has to be able to stand toe to toe with other tier one decks. Winning roughly 50% of games against other tier one decks is what we’re looking for here. There will be match-ups that are more or less favorable, but if a deck can’t consistently beat any of the other tier one decks, it just isn’t tier one.

 

You need both. If a deck has one but not the other, it is a tier two deck. This is a self-referential standard, which means that from time to time that rankings will change as archetypes jockey for position.

 

Tier Two:

By the previous definition, tier two decks are unable to consistently hang with the tier one decks or can’t consistently outperform all tier two decks. But, tier two decks can still consistently beat more casual decks. I consider a deck tier two if one of two things is true:

  1. It is the most competitive deck in its Commander’s color identity, OR…

  2. There are multiple competitive archetypes within a given color identity that are substantially different. Example: Glissa, the Traitor and Meren of Clan Nel Toth are both Black/Green, but their strategies overlap on only a handful of nonland cards. Because they operate in very different ways, they could both be tier two.

 

For generic “good stuff” decks, there’s usually just one most competitive Commander in a color identity. For decks which are more dedicated to a unique strategy, there could be any number of individual tier two decks in a given color identity, provided that they are all competitive enough to consistently outperform casual decks.

 

Tier 3:

Tier three decks aren’t genuinely competitive. It could be that these cards just aren’t particularly well suited to competitive 1v1 play, like Phelddagrif, or it could be that they’re quite similar to another legendary creature in the same color identity, but just worse for all practical purposes. An example here would be Geist of Saint Traft. It’s so powerful that other potential Blue/White Aggro-Control commanders get pushed out of tier two playability.

 

Tier One Decks

The last time I discussed the top decks in the format, I highlighted seven decks at the top of the mountain: Sharuum the Hegemon, Jhoira of the Ghitu, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind, Braids, Cabal Minion, Azami, Lady of Scrolls, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, and Erayo, Soratami Ascendant. Three of those cards are now banned. Let’s take a look at how things have changed (in no particular order):

 

Sharuum

Sharuum the Hegemon: Esper offers a wide variety of powerful tools for Commander decks. Sharuum is an artifact-heavy combo strategy, based around the sphinx’s ability to recur artifacts from the graveyard. Generally, this takes the form of Sharuum + Sculpting Steel, which creates a loop of creatures coming in and out of play. There are a number of ways to abuse this interaction, all slightly different depending on the third combo piece you have available.

 

To supplement this, you have access to the best tutors, card drawing, discard, and counterspells. Sharuum can afford to play a much more controlling, disruption-first game because the win conditions are compact and easily searchable. Moreover, Sharuum is a key piece in these winning combinations, so combos are easier to assemble because you have access to one half from the start. Sharuum, like many of the others on this list, greatly benefited from the “tuck rule” change. Additionally, the archetype has received some key cards in recent years like Shinx’s Revelation (Wizards pictured the wrong sphinx in the art, how embarrassing)…so Sharuum is really better than ever.

 

Jhoira

Jhoira of the Ghitu: There is nothing fair about Jhoira, and when it comes to broken plays, very few decks can compete with this deck’s best draws. The idea is to get Jhoira into play and then suspend a combination of two cards. One sweeper to take away all your opponent’s lands, like Obliterate, and then one giant fatty to steamroll your helpless opponent, like Blightsteel Colossus.

 

Jhoira on the play is pretty tough to beat without a very dedicated disruption package. The problem with trying to disrupt Jhoira decks is that they typically contain an absurd number of counterspells. The nature of the Suspend ability lets you cast all your spells with your lands still untapped to interact. This is also a very gas-heavy deck. You may have to present multiple answers or find yourself with no lands. As of the time of this writing, I have Lady J(ane) as the number two deck.

 

Sidisi Dredge

Sidisi, Brood Tyrant: To be clear, the Dredge deck is not a controlling version or generic pile of good stuff. This deck starts with an enabler like Mesmeric Orb or Hermit Druid to pour a bunch of cards into the graveyard at once. With Sidisi in play, you make a pile of zombie tokens to kill your opponent with. If your opponent answers with a Wrath of God effect, you can Dredge back Golgari Grave-Troll to present an immediate clock on the following turn. Combine this with a Green, Blue, Black shell of power tutoring, ramp, and disruption, and now you have a stew going.

 

I have a confession to make (again). I think Dredge is sweet. I think that every format should have a Dredge deck, or at least something like it. I’ve been waiting a long time for a tier one deck to play Bazaar of Baghdad in Commander. Maybe that makes me a bad person; unfair decks make people feel bad. It feels like cheating and I understand that it really sucks when you lose a game without being able to interact in any meaningful way.

 

The way I see it, though, unfair decks keep people honest. If you can’t stop your opponent from winning the game, your deck can’t be that good. It’s just that simple to me. Sidisi comes at you on an oblique and I love it. Making a few dozen zombie tokens at the end of your opponent’s turn, without casting any spells, and without really tapping any mana, seems legit.

 

In all fairness, this one of the less consistent combo decks on this list, but much like Sharuum, it has excellent support in its colors. Access to Green ramp spells combined with an unusually high threat density lets Sidisi play a much more conventional game plan when the situation demands it. I’ve examined many different builds of Sidisi in my own testing and even now I’m not sure what the optimal configuration is for this deck, but the archetype is still fairly new. Over the next year we’ll likely see the online community shake the tree until a single, preferred deck list falls out.

 

Narset

Narset, Enlightened Master: Narset was the breakout Commander from the Khans of Tarkir set. The premise is simple: attack with Narset to get free spells. That’s about all there is to it. By flipping the right cards, you can easily kill your opponent on the spot.

 

The Khans block brought us a whole mess of exciting new legendary creatures, but Narset has quickly rocketed to the top. The powerful allure of free spells combined with the massive popularity of the deck has left many players with a sour taste. The deck prefers to win by chaining together extra attack steps, which leaves opponents uninvolved in the game and more than a little disappointed. I can respect that this deck is annoying to play against, but in competitive games you don’t earn extra points by engendering good will.

 

Niv-Mizzet

Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind: This has been one of the top decks in the format for as long as EDH has existed. The key win condition is to assemble one of: Curiosity, Mind Over Matter, Ophidian Eye, or Tandem Lookout with you Niv-Mizzet. You simultaneously draw infinite cards and deal infinite damage…all at instant speed.

 

All that being said, this color combination is a bit weaker for trying to tutor up combo pieces. To make up for this, you have a strong array of backup win conditions like Splinter Twin and a massive pile of counterspells.

 

Azami

Azami, Lady of Scroll: The first lady of EDH. The original combo queen. This has long been one of the most feared and hated decks in every Commander playgroup. Traditionally, this deck used a large package of wizard creatures to tear through its library to find Mind Over Matter to then draw an arbitrary number of cards. This essentially lets you tutor for any card in your deck and kill them with a ham sandwich.

 

Nowadays Azami doesn’t command the same level of respect in 1v1, but it can still play a very powerful aggro-control game plan with the potential for explosive combo finishes. Drawing multiple cards per turn to fuel Forbid is how this deck usually wins games.

 

Edric

Edric, Spymaster of Trest: Living proof that the development process for casual product releases is horribly flawed. Here your goal is to play Edric and a throng of cheap creatures. From this point on you are drawing several cards a turn and countering every spell your opponent plays. This is a pure aggro-control deck, making it less explosive than the combo decks mentioned thus far. What Edric lacks in pizzazz, it makes up for with incredible consistency. Make no mistake, Edric is the fastest deck in the format. With a fundamental turn of like three-and-a-half, it can present a soft lock while some decks are still deciding which lands to fetch.

 

Clique

Vendilion Clique: This is a related deck, so I wanted to group them together. Clique has the same basic game plan as Edric: put threat in play, counter all spells. The key difference is that Edric has a built-in card draw engine to fuel their counterspell tank. Clique, however, has Flash, so you don’t ever have to tap out on your own turn. Additionally, you don’t need to play a bunch of small creatures, so you have more room in your deck for additional counters and instant-speed draw spells.

 

Clique is generally worse than Edric in every appreciable way, especially in the head-to-head matchup. Edric has one-drop mana creatures that will accelerate out the commander, giving a huge edge when on the play. Edric can put more power in play and kill more quickly. You also have access to Green, which gives you a number of tutors, ramp spells, and ways to fight counterspells. Edric can play Triumph of the Hordes and Craterhoof Behemoth to kill instantly. Also, Natural Order exists.

 

Clique’s fastest kill comes from Tunnel Vision, but that’s somewhat shaky in a format where Eldrazi are pretty common. On balance, you don’t see Clique as much, mainly because of the price tag, but don’t be fooled. This deck can easily run the table on the rest of the tier one decks, despite its modest percentages against Edric.

 

Tutor-tron Zur

Zur the Enchanter: Zur is a powerful tutoring engine that combines the best aspects of toolbox decks with the fast kills of Voltron-style aggro-control. The idea is to get Zur in play and attacking ASAP. Use your best judgment to search your deck for the appropriate enchantment to enhance your clock or disrupt your opponent and repeat until victorious.

 

Zur has the highest level of access and the best answer suite of any tier one deck. You can reliably find niche hate cards to shut down your opponent’s game plan and you still have all of the more conventional technology you find in Esper decks. The downside is that it’s glacially slow compared to other tier one strategies, with a fundamental turn of around six. Also, with so many silver-bullet tutor targets in your deck, you can often get awkward draws that contain the wrong set of hate cards for the current match up.

 

Pseudo-Tier One

These decks are potentially tier one if built correctly, but use common elements that you would find in any old Commander deck. The win conditions are portable and can be inserted into virtually any deck, which provides a high degree of flexibility. The two main drawbacks of playing one of these strategies is that they are very weak to disruption and they can’t leverage their commander as part of the combo, which limits their consistency somewhat.

 

Oath

Oath isn’t really one deck, but a collective of similar decks share the same game plan and many of the same cards. These could have any one of several different creatures as the commander and are usually either three- or five-color decks. Because of this, and the relatively compact win conditions, an Oath deck can effectively camouflage itself. The goal is to cheat something broken into play using one of the following cards: Oath of Druids, Show and Tell Defense of the Heart, Polymorph, Proteus Staff, etc.

 

The key distinction is that the creatures are coming into play either from the library or from the hand, but not the graveyard. In fact, one of the key advantages to playing this deck is that it totally dodges all graveyard hate, unlike the next deck we will talk about, Reanimator.

 

The primary win conditions in Oath decks are usually Omniscience, Progenitus, Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, or Blightsteel Colossus, but what they have and how they get it into play could be completely different from deck-to-deck. Sometimes you need different hate cards to fight against different lines of play from the Oath deck, which can lend a lot of extra value to the element of surprise. Oath is a slippery one, and if it weren’t for the number of different “pre-snap looks” it can represent, the deck probably wouldn’t be good at all.

 

Reanimator

Oath and Reanimator are essentially the same deck, except Reanimator wants to cheat a fatty into play from the graveyard. This can also conceivably use any commander or any color combination to disguise the intent. The upside is that there are way more options for how to get your threat into play (usually, a Corpse Dance or the eponymous Reanimate). The downside is that you first have to get the creature from your hand or library into the bin, and that opens you up to an entirely new segment of disruption: graveyard hate. Typically, you will also need some sort of enabler to accelerate the process like a Hermit Druid or Entomb.

 

Well, that’s that! Do you hate playing against these decks? Do you play them yourself? Let me know in the comments.  And of course, from everyone here at CommanderCast, we wish you all the best in the new year.

 

-GG

 

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

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